Archive for category New Species

A Page From LIFE – Linsenmaier’s Antioch Dunes Revealed

In 1955, Time LIFE magazine ran the feature article, “The World of the Insects,” an “intimate look at this world of buzzing, flying creatures which abound in summer.” Therein was a 2-part, 6-page-fold-out spread illustrated by famed artist Dr. Walter Linsenmaier titled “A Communal Life on the Dunes.” In detailed cut-aways, the vivid panels feature the flora and fauna of the Antioch Dunes.

(Reproduced with the Permission of Maja Linsenmaier)

(Reproduced with the Permission of Maja Linsenmaier)

Today, the 55-acre Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge is the only federal wildlife refuge in the United States established for the protection of two endangered plants and an insect:

Antioch Dunes evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides howellii)
Contra Costa wallflower (Erysimum capitatum angustatum)
Lange’s metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo langei)

It would be 21 years before the Antioch Dunes’ own Lange’s metalmark butterfly was placed on the Federal Endangered Species List and the dunes designated as Critical Habitat for this dwindling butterfly.

In Linsenmaier’s 1955 illustration, the Lange’s metalmark escaped mention. Instead, the article notes:

“On the Antioch dunes of California, near the junction of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers, lives one of the most richly varied insect communities. The sand, clay and soil are ideal for the burrows of wasps and bees. Grasses and lotus and lupine plants flourishing on the dunes provide plentiful food. Because the dunes lie near the University of California and the California Academy of Sciences, the life upon them has been studied for decades by entomologists. Artist Walter Linsenmaier’s painting of the integrated society found there is based on their discoveries.”

Linsenmaier the artist was no mere observer. Dr. Walter Linsenmaier (August 18, 1917 – October 31, 2000) was a renowned Swiss painter and entomologist who made a name for himself in part because of his specialized work preparing illustrations of birds and insects – especially wasps – for books and magazines. Linsenmaier was also a respected entomologist, known to have described several hundred new species and subspecies of insects, and to have collected an estimated 250,000 insects from around the world.

Given Linsenmaier’s interest in insects, the Antioch Dunes proved the perfect subject. Beginning in 1929, the remarkable insect fauna attracted entomologists from the California Academy of Sciences and the University of California. Between then and 1982, entomologists continued to revisit the dunes every year (excepting 1931, 1943, 1970, and 1980) making it a veritable hot spot for Bay Area entomologists. During that time, 376 insects were recorded at the dunes, of which only 219 were recollected during survey efforts in the early 80′s, suggesting some 157 insect species have since disappeared. All told, their collecting efforts led to the discovery of 27 new taxa of insects. Several of these species were recorded then for the first and last time, remembered today only by the preserved specimens collected during these early forays. And eight insects are—or were—endemic to the Antioch Dunes and nowhere else on earth. During the most recent survey effort, performed between 1995 and 1997, a total of 249 insect taxa were recorded. However, these taxa represented only 35% of the insect species recorded previously during the last extensive survey effort between 1976 and 1982.

Linsenmaier’s landscapes represent a snapshot of the dunes in their decline, leaving it to one’s imagination how the sandy hills might once have been alive with the hustle and buzz of insects in their hey-day.

Full Citation: 1955. The World of the Insects. TimeLIFE Magazine: 39(6): 43-55. August 8.

[Dr. Walter Linsenmaier’s illustrations featured here were reproduced with the kind permission of Maja Linsenmaier (]


, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Darwin Day – Remembering the Man (and the Fish)

In celebration of Darwin Day, I thought it would be fun to revisit a story I originally wrote for Inkling Magazine in 2007 about Darwin fish, “Evolution’s Bumper Sticker War Against Intelligent Design“:

“In a modern world where religion often finds itself at odds with science, it’s worth keeping in mind that Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, was God’s man.  After he returned from his five year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, the Anglican naturalist struggled to reconcile his faith with his theory of evolution by natural selection. As can be expected in a world where the fittest survive, evolution won out over creationism. Today we remember Darwin’s legacy by way of a small plastic fish. A fish with legs…” [Continue Reading]

This feature article was quick to inspire Inkling Magazine‘s Your Chance to Be an Intelligent Designer contest, where readers submitted ideas for a new fish to join the pantheon of pisces that adorn dusty bumpers around the world. Overseeing the competition were judges Prophet Bobby Henderson of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Nona Williams, co-owner of Ring of Fire Enterprises, and science blogger PZ Myers.

My own contribution to the contest was The Steve Fish, inspired by the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve, “a tongue-in-cheek parody of a long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of “scientists who doubt evolution” or “scientists who dissent from Darwinism.”

But hands down, the best entry in my esteem was the Teapot Fish contributed by Patrick Quigley, in honor of the late Bertrand Russell and his famous Celestial Teapot metaphor.

I can’t recall who actually won, but in honor of the late Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 to April 19, 1882), let’s raise a cup of tea to remember the champion of science and reason.

, , , ,


Sardis and Stamm – Book Release and Dune Tour

With my new children’s book – Sardis and Stamm – about to arrive hot off the press in the next week or so, we’re already planning the book’s debut with a tour of the dunes and an opportunity to attend a book reading, followed by a book signing event by myself and illustrator Nicole Wong, at the East Bay Regional Park District’s Big Break Visitor Center at the Delta (Big Break Regional Shoreline) on January 11, 2014.

If you aren’t already familiar with the project, you can read more about it here on the pages of (bio)accumulation, or visit the project website here.

Here’s the announcement for the upcoming book release and dune tour:

SardisStammAnnouncement-v3web2I hope to see you there!

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

New Children’s Book – Sardis and Stamm

Over the last few years, I’ve been working together with the Friends of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and science illustrator Nicole Wong on a children’s book – Sardis and Stamm – about the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge and the federally endangered Lange’s metalmark butterfly. The story is about a young girl – Sardis – who comes across Stamm, a wayward Lange’s metalmark butterfly that has found itself blown beyond the relict sands of the Antioch Dunes. As this unlikely hero returns the battered butterfly across the dunes to a cloud of metalmarks looking to lay their eggs, the pair stumble into a hidden world filled with plasterer bees and katydids, legless lizards and robber flies – many of which can be found nowhere else on Earth but at the Antioch Dunes.

Sardis & Stamm was realized through the backing, financial, and technical support of friends and sponsors that include the Contra Costa County Fish and Wildlife Committee Propagation Fund, administered by the Contra Costa County Fish and Wildlife Committee; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service; the Bohart Museum of Entomology (University of California, Davis); the California Academy of Sciences (Entomology); and the Essig Museum of Entomology (University of California, Berkeley).

The Friends will donate a portion of the first run of books published to local schools and libraries. Proceeds from the sale of the remaining books will be reinvested in the project to fund future printings of Sardis and Stamm. The plight of the Lange’s metalmark butterfly is dire: in 1999, the peak butterfly count numbered 2,342 in a single day; the 2012 peak was 32 butterflies, and to date 2013’s peak count was 28 individual butterflies. There has never been a more pressing time to get the word out about the Antioch Dunes and the Lange’s metalmark butterfly than there is today.

If you want to learn more about the project and the upcoming book, which we hope to have in our hands shortly before Thanksgiving, or about the Antioch Dunes in general and the history and natural history of the dunes’ rare and endemic flora and fauna, please visit:

, , , , ,

1 Comment

Breviora: Four New Species of California Legless Lizards (Anniella)

Writing in the September 2013 issue of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard’s Breviora, California herpetologists Theodore J. Papenfuss and James F. Parham recently took the world by storm, enchanting news outlets across the globe with their discovery and description of four new species of California legless lizards.

Until recently, this unique lizard remained a relatively unheard-of reptile species (that is, outside of the small herpetological circle of Anniella initiates or those unknowingly lucky enough to live in an area where legless lizards are so common, they show up in the garden like earthworms). Nevertheless, California legless lizards are otherwise commonplace in central and southern California with sandy, loamy soils, oak trees, and lupines. Their namesake leglessness is an adaptation to a life spent underground, where they effectively swim through sandy soils, surfacing only to feed on insects beneath the leaf litter or short bursts of aboveground dispersal. Any resemblance to snakes is passing: legless lizard have moveable eyelids, vestigial limb rudiments, and autocaudal autonomony, the ability to lose their tails like common fence lizards.

After reporting a high genetic diversity amongst California legless lizards in 2009 (see Parham and Papenfuss 2009), Papenfuss and Parham delved deeper into Anniella spp. genetics to identify the contact zones between the emerging clades and determine whether these lineages were genetically isolated enough to recognize distinct cryptic species. After reviewing museum specimens as part of their 14-year range-wide study of genetic variation, Papenfuss and Parham found that coloration, one of the major morphological characters that helps distinguish the emerging Anniella complex, went largely unreported because the markings of specimens collected and preserved in alcohol became faded and degraded. Additional field study turned up live specimens whose coloration, paired with x-ray vertebral counts, stripe width, and scale counts, corroborated the researchers’ genetic variation.

Anniella alexanderae, upper left: dorsal and ventral view showing the diagnostic gray coloration. Anniella campi, upper right: dorsal view and detail showing diagnostic double dark lateral stripes. Anniella grinnelli, lower left: ventral view showing diagnostic purple coloration and dorsal view. Anniella stebbinsi, lower right: dorsal and ventral view. Center: comparison of ventral coloration from three of the new species: A. grinnelli, left, A. alexanderae, center, and A. stebbinsi. Image credit: Theodore Papenfuss / James Parham.

Anniella alexanderae, upper left: dorsal and ventral view showing the diagnostic gray coloration. Anniella campi, upper right: dorsal view and detail showing diagnostic double dark lateral stripes. Anniella grinnelli, lower left: ventral view showing diagnostic purple coloration and dorsal view. Anniella stebbinsi, lower right: dorsal and ventral view. Center: comparison of ventral coloration from three of the new species: A. grinnelli, left, A. alexanderae, center, and A. stebbinsi. Image credit: Theodore Papenfuss / James Parham.

Here, briefly, are the four species nova:

Anniella alexanderae, new species
Temblor Legless Lizard

Key Diagnostic Characters: light grey ventral coloration; single lateral stripe; high (>250) dorsal scale count.
Distribution: sandy soils at the southeast base of the Temblor Range between McKittrick and Taft, west side of the Southern San Joaquin Valley, Kern County, CA.


Anniella campi, new species
Southern Sierra Legless Lizard

Key Diagnostic Characters: double, dark lateral stripes.
Distribution: western edge of the Mojave Desert in Kern and Inyo County, CA.


Anniella grinnelli, new species
Bakersfield Legless Lizard

Key Diagnostic Characters: purple (grayish red) ventral coloration.
Distribution: southern San Joaquin Valley and east side of the Carrizo Plain, CA.


Anniella stebbinsi, new species
Southern California Legless Lizard

Key Diagnostic Characters: karotype (cryptic).
Distribution: throughout southern California south of the Transverse Ranges into northern Baja California, Mexico; disjunct populations in the Tehachapi and Piute mountains, Kern County, CA.


With these new species comes another well-deserved honorific by naming the southern California legless lizard Anniella stebbinsi, a tribute to esteemed herpetologist Dr. Robert C. Stebbins.

These celebrated species may vanish as quickly as they’ve appeared, however. Given how easy it is to overlook these cryptic lizards, the limited distributions of three of them – the Temblor (A. alexanderae), Southern Sierra (A. campi), and Bakersfield (A. grinnelli) legless lizards – puts them at greater risk of extinction, especially where they overlap with human habitation. Papenfuss and Parham recommend further study to better understand the range and distribution of this newly described California-endemics.

Full Citation: Papenfuss, Theodore J. and James F. Parham. 2013. Four New Species of California Legless Lizards (Anniella). Breviora: September 2013, No. 536, pp. 1-17.

, , , , , , , , , , ,